While the Pittsburgh Steelers opened camp with plenty of questions surrounding their quality and depth at inside linebacker, it would appear that one of the answers has emerged in the shape an undrafted rookie free-agent. As the standout performer at his position once again on Saturday afternoon, it would be fair to assume that Matthew Thomas has cemented his place on the Steelers’ 53-man roster heading into 2018.
In a clear sign that the coaching staff is giving him every opportunity to make the squad, the Florida State product saw extensive playing time against the Tennessee Titans. Thomas should also consider the creation of a personnel package designed specifically to get him onto the field with the first team early on as a very positive sign regarding his future in Pittsburgh.
As part of a package called the “Seminole”, Thomas came into the game in 3rd-and-long situations in place of Anthony Chickillo. Vince Williams then moved into Chickillo’s role as an outside linebacker, while Thomas took his place at inside linebacker.
ILB Matthew Thomas says there's a name to the package that got him in the game with the first team: 'Seminole.' Thomas played college ball at FSU.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) August 25, 2018
Steelers definitey with another twist to their defense having rookie Matthew Thomas replace Anthony Chickillo then Thomas goes inside and Vince Williams outside in a pass-rushing role. At least 3 times already. @TheAthleticPGH— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) August 25, 2018
Speaking to the media after the game, it was apparent the rare opportunity to play with the starting unit wasn’t lost on Thomas. As reported by Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“I need all the experience I can get, I’m looking forward to more. I did think it was a big deal just being out there with the first-team. A lot of linebackers don’t have a lot of speed, I’m blessed to have some speed. I can tackle. I can cover. I don’t feel like I have a lot of weaknesses. I just have to work on techniques and learning the defense.”
It may be asking too much to expect Thomas to learn fast enough to secure a starting job in his rookie season, but playing a situational role on passing downs might not be beyond him. In fact, given the coverage issues of many of his teammates at the position, Thomas might arguably be among the team’s most viable options for this role already.
With two weeks to go until the Steelers’ opening game, there’s still time for Thomas to improve further. Considering his rate of development during camp, it seems reasonable to expect his play will become more consistent as he becomes more comfortable with the playbook.
“I just went out there and played ball, focused on my assignments. It definitely feels good. I guess that doesn’t happen a lot of times. I know I can help out to some extent. Wherever they feel comfortable I have to do that.”
Thomas led the team with seven tackles on the day and was also in on a special teams tackle, another area where he looks like he could be a valuable contributor. Already one of the highest-graded rookie linebackers through the first two weeks of the preseason by Pro Football Focus, it seems unlikely the Steelers will be able to sneak Thomas onto the practice squad if that’s their plan.
If Pittsburgh decides to keep only four players at inside linebacker, there’s a possibility the coaching staff could opt to go with the veteran players in Williams, Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort but, based on the rookie’s level of play so far, that would seem to be a mistake.